kathmandu: Close-up of pussywillow catkins. (Default)
Joanna Russ wrote this interesting book called Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (The Crossing Press, 1985). I haven't read the whole thing, but there's an excerpt posted at the Feminist Reprise library. I think it relates to what's been going on at Shakesville.

See, Melissa McEwan created and maintains Shakesville as a feminist blog, supporting it with her own money, time, and energy. She asks visitors and commenters to respect a few simple rules, such as to refrain from personal attacks or violent imagery.

And yet some commenters, more and more of them, keep disrespecting her authority by violating her rules. As her co-bloggers put it,
Rather than meeting with the same care and concern that she consistently demonstrates to community-members at the blog, she is treated as if she is the butler or maid-servant, whose job it is to clean up after or protect others, but who has no right to ask that her safety be attended to. After a period in which her expressed concerns are met overwhelmingly with indifference, she understandably concludes that her voice will be neither heard, supported, nor defended. ... Melissa steps away from the blog. In order to assure her own health and well-being, Melissa removes herself from an environment where her dignity, authority, and safety are not being respected. ... Community-members flood her email and comment-threads with communications about how important Shakesville is to them, and how much they respect and cherish her work -- often these communications are accompanied with pleas for her to keep blogging, questions about where the pub went, or demands and ultimatums that she blog about this or that. ... Wash, rinse, repeat.


This isn't a one-time thing. This isn't even an anomaly centering on Melissa and Shakesville. Joanna Russ wrote about exactly this phenomenon over twenty years ago. This is a chronic pattern acting out the imperatives of cultural femininity. Maybe if we become aware of it, we can stop letting patriarchal thinking drive us into attacking our own.

See, what Joanna Russ pointed out is that women are not supposed to be powerful, to succeed, to achieve any kind of acclaim in the public sphere. But if we insist on doing such an unfeminine thing, we're expected to make up for it by devoting ourselves wholly to serving other people's interests. And I do mean wholly.

As Russ put it:
...one of the ways achieving women combat the guilt of success is by agreeing to be Magic Mommas.

* MMs give to others -eternally.
* MMs are totally unselfish.
* MMs have infinite time and energy.
* MMs love all other women, always.
* MMs never get angry at other women.
* MMs don't sleep.
* MMs never get sick.


ETA: Russ also made it clear that people don't always agree to be Magic Mommas. Sometimes, if one member of a group is even slightly more active than the others, they will appoint her Magic Momma and expect her to be infinitely giving even if she never offered to. [/ETA]

Doesn't that sound like the demands people have been making of Melissa? 'Post for us, constantly, endlessly. You're not allowed to sleep, to have other responsibilities, to be upset when we pull your known triggers, to say we did wrong by triggering you or insulting you or trying to rename you as though you were an object.'

Russ also pointed out that Trembling Sisters, women who play the more conventional feminine role, avoiding achievement or feeling unable to act publicly, tend to feel that Magic Mommas owe them that endless stream of love and giving; that they need the Magic Momma's energy/money/advocacy/comfort to make up for the powerlessness and confinement of their own lives. And if the Magic Momma ever complains about these endless demands or criticizes the Trembling Sister (say, because the Trembling Sister committed personal insults or threats of violence), the Trembling Sister complains that her feelings are hurt, that the Magic Momma's being so mean, this is such a betrayal from someone she trusted and relied on! How can you hurt me, don't you know I'm more important than your feelings or your life?

This trashes the Magic Momma's feelings, reputation, and safe space.

Trashing in the feminist movement has always proceeded from "below" "upwards," directed by the Trembling Sister (that is, those who've adopted the TS position) at the self-elected (or merely supposed) MM. The hidden agenda of trashing is to remain helpless and to fail, whatever the ostensible motivation. The payoff is to Be Good (though miserable). The TS/MM scenario is predicated on the unrealistic ascription of enormous amounts of power to one side and the even more unrealistic ascription of none at all to the other. It assumes that hurting another woman's feelings is the worst thing--the very worst thing--the most unutterably awful thing--that a woman can do. In a world where women and men are starved, shot, beaten, bombed, and raped, the above assumption takes some doing, [my bold] but since the MM/TS script requires it, it gets made. (The script also assumes that the MM has no feelings, or if she does, hurting them is a meritorious act.) (--Russ)

None of this is to say that any Shakesville commenters are Bad People: we all get conditioned by the patriarchy; we all sometimes obey that conditioning without realizing what we're doing. By the same token, we all need to strive to identify that conditioning and stop acting on it.

No one originally takes either position of her own free will. The Feminine Imperative is forced on all of us. But in adulthood, and certainly within a feminist community, a woman who remains in either position is her own prisoner. The women's community as a mystically loving band of emotional weaklings who make up to each other by our kindness and sweetness for the harshness we have to endure in the outside world is a description that exactly characterizes the female middle-class sub-culture as it's existed in patriarchy for centuries--without changing a thing. This is not a revolutionary movement but a ghetto in which anyone seen as having achievement, money, or power is cast as a Magic Momma, whose function is to make up to everyone else for the world's deprivation and their terror of effectiveness. This is impossible. So the requirement becomes to make others feel good all the time, an especially seductive goal in times of political reaction when activity directed outward at the (seemingly) monolithic social structure is not only frustrating but frighteningly dangerous. So honesty goes by the board, hurt feelings are put at a premium, general fear and paralysis set in, and one by one any woman who oversteps the increasingly circumscribed area of what's permissible is trashed. Eventually, after the demons of success and effectiveness have been banished, and all the female villains who made everyone else feel miserable have left or been silenced, what happens?

The group disintegrates.

The Feminine Imperative has been faithfully served. The enemy has been driven from the ranks. Feminism has been destroyed. (--Russ)

And that would be a shame.

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